Ranji's senior citizens have shown that old is gold
They have seen the game change and embraced new cricket that is so different from when they started.
Just around the same time as Australia demolished itself at the Kotla another five-day game ended earlier than scheduled in Kolkata. This was the Ranji final which Saurashtra won - their second title in 3 years.
But Saurashtra’s win, compared to India’s Kotla triumph, was a minor sideshow that attracted only passing attention. The Eden Gardens was without its passionate fans and the post-game prize ceremony lacked star value as Avisek Dalmiya presented the trophy. Unadkat’s boys collectively took home ₹2 crores for winning the national championship, the same as the auction price of U-19 star Shafali Verma in the WPL.
Though the Ranji Trophy 2022-2023 season went largely unnoticed, it was significant not just for confirming Saurashtra’s emergence as a domestic powerhouse. More telling was the impact made by veteran players - the senior citizens - on India’s domestic circuit. Typically, young talent gets noticed because they bring hope for an exciting future. With seniors, this is missing and their achievements recede into the background.
For seniors, Ranji is a tough grind with (potentially )10 games played across the country over three months. The relentless training/travel/ match routine is exhausting as cricket demands energy and athleticism. Talented youngsters play for their future and an IPL contract but this does not hold for senior players.
They instead have to search for motivation from within - it's a matter of passion and pride, not paisa. Not for them any hope of making the Indian because that train left the station long back. They also have to cope with family responsibilities, slow reflexes and aching bones.
Considering the odds, the achievements of Ranji’s senior citizens are very impressive. In Maharashtra, Kedar Jadhav made a spectacular return after three years, only because regulars Ruturaj Gaikwad and Rahul Tripathi were injured. Grabbing the lifeline, the 37-year-old Jadhav playing his 15th Ranji season slammed 283 from 283 balls. In 6 innings this year he made two hundreds and 2 fifties.
No less compelling is the example of Manoj Tiwary, Minister of Sports in Bengal. The 37-year-old veteran started playing first-class cricket 20 seasons ago and was dropped last year. But he came back in style, filling in as captain when Easwaran was away. Tiwary is a fantastic player who has scored almost 10,000 runs, more than anyone else for Bengal.
Equally remarkable is the continued excellence ( across 18 years ) of Jalaj Saxena, the Kerala allrounder who has 14 first-class hundreds and 400 wickets. This year off-spinner Jalaj was in superb form: 50 victims in seven matches , 5 wickets 6 times , the top wicket-taker in the tournament.
One must also salute Paras Dogra (originally from Himachal, now with Puducherry) whose Ranji record is phenomenal. In the 22 seasons he’s been around, Paras has made 9000 runs with 31 hundreds, averaging 52. This year was modest for him, which was also the case with Faiz Fazal at Vidharbha. The left-handed opener has spent two decades in Ranji but struggled this time.
In cricket, batters tend to last longer than bowlers so it is great to see some stalwarts carrying on. Ishant Sharma, despite his 100 Test appearances, played one Ranji game for Delhi before fading away. Punjab’s Sidharth Kaul, relatively young at 32, has already clocked 15 years on the circuit and taken 250 odd wickets.
Shahbaz Nadeem, Jharkhand’s underrated left-arm spinner, is a Ranji legend. His debut was 19 years ago, at age 15. He takes a bagful of wickets every year and his overall tally is more than 500. Yet he is not on anyone’s superstar shortlist.
Just as we celebrate our international stars, Ranji’s senior citizens deserve respect and recognition. They have seen the game change and embraced new cricket that is so different from when they started.
The domination of Mumbai is a distant memory with the 42 times title winners failing to make the knockouts. The wickets are different, akhaaras (dust bowls) are history and spinners are not lead stars anymore. Bowling attacks are built around three pacers and a left-arm spinner is included to give them breaks and to get through 90 overs in a day.
When Manoj Tiwary and Paras Dogra started playing Ranji, physios were not around and nobody had heard of video analysts. Cricket has come a long way since those days, players are expected to be athletes who run 2 kilometers in eight and a half minutes. Nowadays, bowlers bowl wearing trendy sunglasses, the keeper has a helmet and short leg is protected with football like shin pads reaching up to his knees.
Surely, it is a challenge for Ranji’s senior citizens to keep pace with all that is changing around them. And a bigger test to perform to stay ahead of the competition.